I spent the last month asking longtime Valley residents what their favorite swimming hole is and why. A bit of a Valley swimming hole fanatic myself, I was surprised at the amount of new plunge-worthy places people spilled to me. But then I was promptly sworn to secrecy. Sure, all swimming holes are a wonderful way to pass a lazy summer day, but the area's true swimming hole fans know that the best ones are the top secret ones—the ones you've spent years falling down wooded slopes, scratching poison ivy and scrambling up river rocks for.
The following list includes none of those places. But when it's a humid 95 degrees, these will do.
The Bend, West Chesterfield: Take a dip in this pooled section of the Westfield River before staking out a sunning spot on its tiny strip of sand. Nestled into a sky-high wall of trees and boulders, this modest swimming spot is popular with Hilltown locals and their young children. Perfect for: A long afternoon of dunks, snacks and naps. What you'll find: Sand castles and designated parking. Bring: The kids.
Orange Dam, Leeds: Next to the bike path, this dam-induced waterfall is the perfect place for a daring jump. With only a graffiti-covered concrete slab for sunbathing and a clear view of the road, Orange Dam has an urban feel and is popular with the high school set. Venture a little further upstream via wooded paths and you'll find Hippie Beach, which has more space for lying out and wading and a resident shrine decked with driftwood, stone piles and sea glass. Though these are the obvious choices, river-woven Leeds reveals much more satisfying spots for those willing to bushwhack. Perfect for: A brief adrenaline rush. What you'll find: Marlboro Lights, iPods and neon bikinis. Bring: A joint.
Knightville Dam, Huntington: This scenic spot is pretty expansive, with modestly tall jumping rocks and enough sand space to play beach games. Take Route 112 north through Huntington, go over a bridge and then take the second of two dam entrances that you'll find on the right. Take a left on the dirt road and bump your way to a makeshift parking lot. Perfect for: An all-day swimming affair. What you'll find: A nature-oriented crowd and their dogs. Bring: A picnic from Westhampton's Outlook Farms and a wiffle ball set.
Sunburn Beach, Shelburne Falls: We thought we'd never go on after the heartbreaking closure of Shelburne Falls' Glacial Potholes. But just off a short path jutting off North River Road, Sunburn Beach soothes our pain with a little something for everyone. Rocks for jumpers, shallow stretches for the little ones, a current for a leisurely float, and its famous gigantic flat rocks, sitting warm and toasty and just begging for tan-seekers, all have this spot bustling when the temperatures climb. Perfect for: Everyone, even the tourists. What you'll find: People, lots of them. Bring: Sunblock. It's not called Sunburn for nothing.
Puffer's Pond, Amherst: Puffer's is the opposite of a charming Valley swimming hole but it is a non-chlorinated place to swim. True to its name, Puffer's is a large pond, supposedly kept fresh by a stream that feeds into it, though the water always strikes me as dirty. Popular with UMass students, this pond has more of a party atmosphere than the feel of a relaxing day at the beach. Last time I was there there were two guys floating in inner tubes attached to beer coolers by a string, an off-duty a capella group sang incessantly and badly, and a photography student asked every swimmer if he could snap their portrait. You get the idea. Perfect for: People-watching and debauchery. What you'll find: A clean sandy place to lay your towel. Bring: PBR and hand sanitizer.
Glendale Falls, Middlefield: Surrounded by woods, Glendale Falls is less a hole and more a swimming network of rocks, small waterfalls and shallow pools. It's not ideal for sunbathing; you've got to come at the right time to avoid too much shade, and you'll have to do some rock-hopping to get to the places deep enough to paddle in. Head down Route 143 through Worthington, take a left onto River Road and then a right after the bridge that has a concrete slab dated 1990. Perfect for: People who are mountain goats first, water babies second. What you'll find: More rocks than water. Bring: Your Birkenstocks and walking stick.
Gay Beach, Cummington: One mile west of the Cummington town sign on Route 9 is a rest area on the left. Head downstream off this rest stop and after about half a mile you'll find a string (seriously) leading you across a shallow part of the river and onto a well-trodden path that'll take you where you're looking to go. The place is bustling with cars even when it's 60 degrees, so you should have no problem finding your way. Popular with the gay male set but not too cruisey; don't bother packing a bathing suit. Need I say more?
The Dog Park, Northampton/Florence: Having just recently become a dog owner myself, I've only recently begun exploring the dog park next to the Northampton communal gardens. While obviously the perfect place for a walk with your furry best friend, it's also not-so-obviously a fun place to cool off with Fido. Just follow your nose to the stream through the worn paths in the bordering woods. Perfect for: Not worrying about your dog trampling sunbathers. What you'll find: Wet dogs (duh). Bring: A ball.
As for the best-kept secrets? Well, there's one in Conway near a famous person's house. There are plenty with rope swings. And there are even more that will get you arrested, injured or very, very lost. But you'll just have to find those for yourself because the only thing worse than a Valley summer without a swimming hole is a writer spoiling them for everyone else.?